- In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran
Oxford, 348 pp, £20.99, November 2002, ISBN 0 19 514930 0
Scott Atran packs a lot into his subtitles. ‘Evolutionary Landscape’: that’s the new idea in this book about gods. The human mind has evolved with numerous capacities. Each distinct capacity is well adapted to performing a group of tasks in its domain. Individuals possess these capacities in varying degrees, but they are part of the universal genetic inheritance of the human race. For example, the capacity for stereoscopic vision is a human birthright, though some of us have a severe squint, have lost an eye, or have brain damage. Atran urges that these capacities are prominences – mountains – in a landscape, and that natural selection is the core explanation of how they got there. The landscape can also account for many aspects of human beings for which there is no adaptive value. For example, the human race has a pervasive tendency towards religious conviction. This is not because religious conviction is well adapted to survival: quite the contrary. Religion does make use of evolved capacities, but it is able to do so because those capacities overstep the domains to which they are adapted.
There are shades of Kant here (he is not, I think, mentioned in the book). Kant taught that pure reason, which is great for what it is supposed to do, oversteps its bounds and falls into all manner of awful intellectual pits. Atran’s thought is analogous. We are innately disposed to religious commitment because our cognitive landscape makes belief in gods and the supernatural extraordinarily easy. So easy, in fact, that religion is not going to go away. In this, the book registers a core problem for the rationalist atheist. Atran calls himself agnostic, but no matter. Certainly, no form of theism, be it mono, poly or pan, is on the cards as a live possibility in this book: the beliefs are implausible and the practices are demanding. Atran gives endless examples from anthropology, but we need go no further than the Anglican creed. It speaks of a man crucified, dead and buried, who descended into hell, rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven. Part of that is quite straightforward. This man was well and truly dead, but he came back to life. We believe it, even if we have never seen the like. But the rest of the story is so far from straightforward as to make no sense at all: this man, according to the creed, ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God – who is disembodied but has a right hand.
Furthermore, the Church of England is quite expensive to maintain. Many Anglicans devote a lot of time and energy to their faith, though nothing like the vast amount of labour, talent, loving concern and gross national product that once went into Ely cathedral and its companions. Religions demand time, energy, material goods, and often the sacrifice of lives. In Atran’s summary, ‘religion is costly, counterfactual, and even counterintuitive.’ So how, he asks, is it that religious beliefs and practices are manifest anywhere there are people, past or present? How could evolution have favoured wasteful investment in preposterous beliefs?
Atran does not deny that religion has its uses. Faith helps soldiers resist the terror of battle, and it consoles mothers who lose their sons. At a more social level, it helps groups cohere, and fosters communal action. But that is not ‘why’ it is there in the first place, as a human universal. It is, Atran argues, a consequence of a misapplication of adaptive capacities. His task is to identify the capacities for us, sketch their adaptive value, then explain how they are systematically open to misapplications that engender our penchant for religion. Quite a project.
He relies on a combination of the most recent human sciences. Evolutionary epistemology and cognitive psychology are two of them. He also invokes a lot of older-fashioned anthropology. One of his exceptional talents is in weaving together a vast number of strands that most of us keep asunder. Fifteen years ago he published a remarkable book, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science. Despite the ponderous title, it brilliantly combined four previously unrelated elements: Aristotelian biology, 17th-century natural history, a cross-cultural study of how plants are classified around the world, and up-to-the-minute cognitive science. I have grown to admire it more and more over the years. Among his long-term engagements is a study of the botany of the Itza’ Maya in the lowlands of Guatemala: that is, of how they talk about plants, the uses they make of them, how they cultivate them, and their medicine. On the side he is an advocate for that people. As a graduate student he initiated an extraordinary conference featuring a seemingly intractable confrontation between two of his heroes, Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Since that time a curious blend of Piaget’s study of child development and Chomsky’s doctrine of innate structures has become an almost autonomous discipline; it could be called developmental cognitive psychology, and is one of the tools that Atran uses here.
Evolutionary psychology has become a boom industry of late, but its most brilliant practitioner was the man who invented it: Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man and above all The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The idea is to explain how the psychological traits of human beings can be explained as evolutionary solutions to environmental problems of very long ago. For example, except for the crazed and the inebriated, almost all human violence is perpetrated by males between the ages of 16 and 25, even if it is fostered or exploited by grizzled old men for their own purposes. Plausible evolutionary explanations for this may be offered in terms of the value of aggression in spreading one’s genes.
Outsiders tend to think that a great many such explanations have at most a specious plausibility. Atran has a healthy scepticism, and speaks of just-so stories. An explanation is no good unless it is also ‘predictive’: that is, unless it explains human phenomena for which the explanation was not in the first instance explicitly designed. But while Atran is sceptical about evolutionary psychology, he is a fervent advocate of one branch of cognitive psychology. Like many of his colleagues today, he holds that the human mind is ‘modular’, with specific faculties that enable us to use our heads. That started with Chomsky and the idea of an inherited module for syntax. Then came perceptual modules (David Marr), modules for reasoning (Jerry Fodor) and finally modules for every mental ability great and small (Dan Sperber). Modularity gone mad, says Fodor.
Atran is content with a modest menu of modules. In his own speciality, he has modules for classifying, recognising and reasoning about living things. This was advantageous in our early past, for among other things it helped us sort predators from prey, and healthy vegetables from toxic plants. That is as good a brief example as any of how modularity can incorporate evolutionary thinking.
Modularity started with syntax and Chomsky’s daring conjectures about an innate language faculty. There are proposals as to how the capacity for grammar and hence for speech evolved, but Chomsky is sceptical of any that have been proposed thus far. (So, I think, is Atran; me too.) There is a module that enables us to pick out what does what to what (or who to whom etc): that is what Atran calls agency. There is a related module for something like causation by agents, which Atran names control; and a module for understanding other human beings. Many of these modules appear to be anticipated in other species, though they are less fine-tuned. (Squirrels can sort living things, too, but their taxonomies are more limited than ours.) Syntax and other linguistic capabilities are famously ‘species-specific’: syntax, to parody Chomsky, is us. Humans have another remarkable faculty. Not only can we represent to ourselves how things are: we can make representations of these representations, which enable us to argue about whether they are true or false.
Cognitive scientists like the metaphor of cognitive architecture; at the back of their minds is the image of building a computer. Perhaps Atran’s alternative metaphor, the landscape, appealed to him because of his atheist rationalism: architecture demands architects, a thought that invites an argument from design for the existence of a god; but landscapes do not need landscape gardeners. Every prominence in this cognitive landscape – every module applied to its own domain – makes us more fit to survive. But if religion is counterfactual, counterintuitive and costly, every bone in the body of natural selection rebels against religion being selected. What could fit us less well for survival than a bunch of false or meaningless beliefs in which individuals and groups invest vast amounts of resources?
There have been a lot of answers to that question. In successive chapters Atran takes on the candidates, and faults each with telling observations. Not everyone will be convinced by his refutations, but the arguments are well informed and draw on a wide body of research. The general line of argument throughout is that most explanations are ‘mindblind’: that is, they pay no attention to the theories of cognition to which Atran subscribes. They are local and partial explanations that work, when they work, only against the broader landscape of the mind and its prominences. Shortest shrift is given to a recent fad for ‘neurotheology’, which is not far from contending that we have an innate god-module, probably located in a frontal lobe of the brain.
Atran attends more seriously to the idea of memes started by Richard Dawkins; started like a hare, perhaps, but still enjoying a fashion, if no longer in Dawkins’s hands (or even with his blessing). Atran thinks there are things going for the notion, and that it may find a place in the theory of cognition. But it doesn’t explain the universality of religion. He attends dutifully but without enthusiasm to old chestnuts: Marxism, psychoanalysis, functionalism in anthropology and the like. He notes that they often come in contradictory pairs: one speaker announces that religion is the opiate of the people, another that it encourages intellectual innovation. Being a rationalist universalist, he is disinclined to take a nuanced mix-and-match approach. Some of us will think there might be many different causes for the existence and survival of religions, some more powerful in one circumstance, some in another. Perhaps collectively they overdetermine the prevalence of religious conviction.
Religion could not have arisen from direct selective advantage, and Atran examines and rejects the notion that it is a by-product of one or more adaptations serving other purposes. It is a little more complex. First, modules do arise from evolutionary advantage. Each has a domain. The domain for recognising kinds of living things is – living things. But partly because of the possibility of meta-representation, modules can be applied beyond their actual domains. Religious beliefs arise from extensions of this kind. Any number of demons and angels can be thought of as living things, and so we get the possibility of agents that are not natural, but supernatural. Agency and control are extended to create controlling agencies that do what no natural entity can. At the same time, they mostly do natural things, so that there is nothing much counterintuitive to remember, just enough to make the image powerful and striking.
Thus the sentences of the creed state beliefs that would normally be incredible, but the Christ that goes along with them is very human and rarely does anything demanding faith beyond reason. That is, of course, an important insight, and needs re-emphasising, even if Christian theology has always said exactly that. But there is also a good admixture of the banal in the details of Atran’s observations. Plus a tendency to make modules and general ideas seem more substantive by naming them in small capital letters: ‘The natural domain of agency is not an ontological category of objects as such, like animate being, animal or person, but a domain of event structures.’ Sometimes the banal and the capitalisation work in tandem:
Humans are cognitively susceptible to invoke supernatural agents whenever emotionally eruptive elements arise . . . with no apparent controlling force. These include chaotic or chance events (earthquakes . . . ), uncertain events (disease, war, famine, loneliness) . . . critical periods in the human life cycle (birth, puberty, old age, death). Awareness of death is one universal cognition that is especially anxiety-provoking.
What about cost? What about the sacrifices required of those who practise religion? Atran argues that you can maintain a communal structure that runs against all human experience only through deep commitment; kinds of behaviour that are ‘hard to fake’ are needed to keep a flock in line. Here, in my opinion, cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology pretty well give up the candle. I don’t mean Atran gives no account of sacrifice, only that his accounts are mostly familiar or verge on the just-so. Worse, even the most dogmatic atheist may feel that this type of analysis is increasingly losing a grip on what religion is all about, all the diverse ways in which it continues to move millions. When William James gave his lectures on the varieties of religious experience, he wasn’t speaking of boxes full of anthropological data, but of lived experience. Of course it is important to test the hypothesis that prayer reduces stress, or that old people are ‘more prone to intensify their social and religious affiliations than other age groups’, but there is an awful lot of non-news in many of the studies that Atran reports.
One author often quoted by Atran – David Hume – passes unscathed. Not that Hume is always correctly cited. ‘As Hume showed,’ Atran claims, ‘it isn’t logically possible for people to consistently generalise from one, or a few scattered instances to a complex set of intricately related cases in the absence of prior structures that guide projection.’ Hume would never have been careless enough to say that this is not logically possible. There is no contradiction in the idea that human beings might be prescient soothsayers, who just happen to get things right most of the time by an unending run of good luck. It’s just that it isn’t biologically or physically possible: in short, although it is possible in logic it is not possible in fact. Hume would have said exactly that, and in effect, did. This sounds like a quibble, but as I’m about to praise Hume I have to ensure his good name. And it isn’t a mere slip, but a mistake. Atran italicises ‘logically impossible’ when he restates this thought later in the book.
Atran does quote with respect a piece Hume published in 1757, The Natural History of Religion, probably written around 1750 (not the immensely better-known Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion). ‘Natural history’ at that time meant the minute description of aspects of nature, most commonly species of plants and animals. Buffon’s monumental Histoire naturelle began publication in 1749, and continued for 44 quite massive volumes. In the very first volume we find The Natural History of Man. In fact, such work was never wholly ‘descriptive’, and could be wholly controversial: La Mettrie’s Natural History of the Soul (1745) was controversial enough to be publicly condemned, shredded and burnt. By prudence, Hume escaped such obloquy. He asked exactly Atran’s question ‘concerning the origin of religion in human nature’, and explained the prevalence of religion in terms of how the mind works. On the first page he says you cannot explain it directly by an ‘original instinct or primary impression of nature’ (read innate module, if you will). Instead, his account uses the anthropology of his day – ‘if travellers and historians may be credited’, as he sagely puts it, also on the first page. He deploys his own ideas about the various mental faculties characteristic of the human mind, and also addresses a topic Atran skirts: why polytheism appears to precede theism in history.
I am not foolishly saying that we have made no advance on the Edinburgh Enlightenment, or the deluge of natural histories of man and his habits written around 1750. But Hume was definitely not ‘mindblind’. Atran’s landscape of the mind should be regarded as speculative natural history like that of Buffon and Hume. Present it in terms of modules and evolutionary conjectures if you will, but it remains a descriptive geography of human nature, and not what we have come in the sciences to call an explanatory theory.